2018 NSW Country Championships: 11 players to watch

By Matt Findlay

The 2018 NSW Country Championships will be played in Western Plains for the very first time this weekend. While Country Week traditionally serves up a few surprises, here are 11 names to keep an eye out for if you’re making the trip west to Warren.

1 | MAX STAFFORD (Newcastle-Hunter – Halfback)

The young Maitland No.9 replaces NSW Country scrum-half Jono O’Toole, no mean feat, but one Newcastle-Hunter coach Stu Pinkerton says he’s up to, labelling Stafford “a good prospect” earlier this year.

He steps up from Newcastle’s colts side and has always featured heavily in the region’s under-age outfits too.

How he handles the lift in intensity, physicality and any pressure that brings will go a long way to Newcastle-Hunter defending its title, or not.

2 | MARK BALDWIN (Central West – Flanker)

A former Randwick skipper and NSW Country Eagle, Baldwin has linked with Dubbo Kangaroos in Central West Rugby Union’s Blowes Clothing Cup and adds a wealth of experience to the Blue Bulls’ pack.

Simply, there’s no denying his value and, despite the ridiculous quality of flankers at this year’s titles, expect him to be named in the Cockatoos’ squad.

3 | ANDREW COLLINS (Northern Bushrangers – Prop)

The captain-coach in the Bushrangers’ inaugural Richardson Shield tilt and also the side’s tighthead prop, Collins has the biggest job of any player at this carnival.

He deserves a bucketload of credit for volunteering to lead the side in the first place, ensuring New England and Central North players still have an avenue through to the Cockatoos and he’s put together a pretty strong outfit.

But now the former Shute Shield and National Rugby Championship bookend and his side have to perform well, and there’s no doubt Collins will be champing at the bit.

4 | ETHAN McINNES, KEVIN McNAMARA (Central Coast – Hooker, Prop)

Both featured in the Cockatoos’ front-row in 2017, were both superb in NSW Country’s shortened program and return again to lead Central Coast’s pack as the side looks to earn promotion back into the top tier Caldwell Cup. With these two both turning out Central Coast’s power at the set-piece will be undeniable, and the experience they both bring will be a huge boost too.

5 | ANDREW COSGROVE (Western Plains – Flanker)

Ben Egan and Joash Mann, both Cockatoos last year, return to Western Plains’ side as the zone hosts the country championship for the first time, and while their value to the hosts is unquestionable, they’re expected to be huge. Andrew Cosgrove on the other hand is a back-rower who could, largely, fly under the radar.

While he doesn’t have the same presence at the breakdown as the other back-rowers on this list, he’s just as powerful as any in the carry and hits like a freight train. If he’s on, Western Plains will have no trouble hitting and moving well beyond the the advantage line.

6 | SHARNAH STEVENS (Central West Women’s)

Named player of the tournament in Central West’s win last year, Stevens has – almost unbelievably – improved even more since then and has been in scintillating form for her club.

In West Wyalong’s three-game unbeaten start to Central West’s Westfund Ferguson Cup, Stevens has scored a ridiculous 15 tries, including a six-try haul in round two.

She’s already the queen of NSW Country and there’s plenty to suggest she’ll hang on to her crown this weekend.

7 | DANE SHERRATT (Newcastle-Hunter – five-eighth)

Last year’s Cockatoos five-eighth, although Far North Coast’s Grant Knight also wore the No.10 jersey, Sherratt is charged with leading his side to back-to-back Caldwell Cups and Newcastle-Hunter has retained the core of its title-winning 2017 squad.

Last year’s halfback Jono O’Toole, also a Cockatoo, won’t turn out at Warren though, so forming a new combination with Stafford may be one slight obstacle.

With Knight named at 13 for Far North Coast, Sherratt looks to have a chance to lock down the Cockatoos’ five-eighth role again with a big show.

8 | TIM SMALL, TOM SAWDEN (Illawarra – Halfback)

Pauli Tuala would be the obvious choice from Illawarra, but it’s Pauli Tuala… we all know what that legend of NSW Country Rugby Union is going to produce, while the battle of the outfit’s two halfbacks is interesting in itself even without taking Cockatoos selection into account.

Last year Sawden ousted Small from the No.9 jersey and went on to win Country selection, but this year Small has won Illawarra’s starting gig back. With 2017 NSW Country half Jono O’Toole not fronting for Newcastle-Hunter the Cockatoos No.9 jersey looks open, and either of these two could easily fill that role.

9 | PAT KEEN (Mid North Coast – Centre)

Was something of a mystery man coming into Central North’s side last year, coming form the clouds to earn Cockatoos selection and then be one of the side’s best to boot.

He won’t line up for Central North this year, for obvious reasons, but he also won’t turn out for the hybrid Northern Bushrangers either – a Central North-New England combination.

He’s actually named for Mid North Coast, a huge boost for a side moving into the top tier after winning last year’s Richardson Shield.

10 | BEN DAMEN (Far North Coast – Fullback)

He’s been labelled “Mr Cool” by NSW Country coach Mat Thomas in the past and has a wealth of Cockatoos experience, in complete fairness there isn’t many superlatives to use about this guy that haven’t been used before.

Far North Coast was beaten in last year’s Richardson Shield final, Damen’s performance will be a key factor if the outfit is to avenge that loss in Warren. So will Grant Knight’s, for that matter.

11 | MAHE FANGUPO (Central West – Five-eighth)

He was picked in the Cockatoos’ intital squad in 2017, but has had question marks over his ability to communicate effectively at the higher levels.

He shifts one out to No.10 despite playing his club rugby at halfback with Forbes, where he’s widely regarded as the best player in Central West’s top tier competition, one whom most pundits suggest is worlds beyond the level he’s playing.

Blue Bulls coach Dean Oxley has waxed lyrical about his vastly improved communication, direction and game management leading into this weekend, and he expects the former Tongan under-20 star to explode at Warren.

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